The Glass-Blowers | Chapter 26 of 39

Author: Daphne du Maurier | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 2078 Views | Add a Review

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16

I was sitting at the top of the stairs, resting my head against the baluster, when Emile called out, “There are some strange-looking people in the street. Some men who look like peasants, wearing sabots, and a lot of women, one of them with a baby. I think they must be lost.”

I had been dozing, but his words startled me to action. I heard Edmé fumble with her musket, and I ran into Emile’s room and stood beside him, peering through the chink of the shutters down into the street. When I saw them I knew. The Vendeans had entered the city. Here were some of the stragglers, who had found their way into our street, and were staring up at the houses for signs of life.

Instinct made me pull Emile back from the window.

“Stay quiet,” I said, “don’t let them see you.”

He looked at me, puzzled, then suddenly he understood.

“Those ragged people down there?” he asked. “Are they the brigands?”

“Yes,” I said. “Perhaps they’ll go away. Keep still.”

Edmé had crept into the room to join us. She had her musket with her. I questioned her with my eyes, and she nodded back at me.

“I won’t fire,” she said, “not unless we’re attacked.”

The three of us stood shoulder to shoulder looking down into the street. The first stragglers had gone ahead, and now others were coming, twenty, thirty, forty. Emile was counting them under his breath. They were not marching, there was no sort of order, these could not be the army proper, who would have gone by the main streets to the place des Halles. These were the followers-on, the rabble.

Now the numbers were growing larger, with more men than women, many of them armed with muskets and pikes, some barefoot but most in sabots. Some of them were wounded, and were supported by their fellows. Nearly all of them were ragged, emaciated, white with exhaustion, soaked and grimy with the mud and the rain.

I do not know what I had expected, or Edmé and Emile either. The beating of drums, perhaps, firing, shouting, singing, the triumphant entry of a victorious army. Anything but silence, the slow clatter of sabots on the cobbles and the silence. The silence was the worst of all.

“What are they looking for? Where are they all going?” whispered Emile.

We did not answer him. There was no answer to give. Like ghosts of dead men they passed beneath our windows and out of sight along the street, and as they passed more took their place, and then in the midst of them another band of women, and some half-dozen whimpering children.

“There won’t be enough to feed them,” said Edmé, “not in all Le Mans.”

I noticed then that she had put down her musket. It was resting against the wall. The clock in the entrance below struck four.

“It will soon be dark,” said Emile. “Where will all these people go?”

Suddenly we heard a clatter of hoofs, and shouting, and what appeared to be a small body of cavalry came down the street, led by an officer. He wore the hated white cockade in his hat and a white sash round his waist, and flourished a saber in his hand. He yelled some order to the straggling wretches ahead, who turned and stared at him. He must have spoken to them in patois; we could not understand a word of it, but we could see by the way he pointed with his saber that he was directing them to the houses opposite.

Some of the people, dazed but obedient, began hammering at the doors. No one, as yet, touched ours. Another body of men, armed and on foot, came down the street. The mounted officer, at sight of them, shouted a command, directing them to the houses, and they scattered, taking a house apiece, hammering on the door, pushing the stragglers away. One of them came and knocked on our door too.

Then the mounted officer, raising himself and standing in his stirrups, shouted aloud, for all of us to hear.

“Not one of you who opens his door will be molested,” he called. “There are some eighty thousand of us here in your city, and we must be fed and housed. Anyone who does not open his door will have that door marked, and the house burned down within the hour. It is for you to decide.”

He paused a moment, then, signaling to the mounted troops behind him, clattered off down the street. The armed foot soldiers and the peasants in the street went on knocking at the houses.

“What shall we do?” asked Edmé.

She had reverted to her role of younger sister. I watched the houses opposite. One of our neighbors had opened the door, and three wounded men were being carried inside. Another door opened. One of the armed soldiers shouted to a woman with two children, and motioned her inside.

“If we don’t open,” I said to Edmé, “they’ll mark the door and come back and burn the house.”

“It could have been a threat,” she answered. “They can’t spare the time to go round marking every door.”

We waited. More and more of them were coming down the street, and since the officer had passed, giving his orders to knock upon the doors, the silence had been broken. They were now calling and shouting to one another in confusion, and it was getting darker as each moment passed.

“I’ll go down,” I said. “I’ll go down and open the door.”

Neither my sister nor my nephew answered me. I went downstairs and unbolted the door. There were some half dozen of them waiting, peasants by the look of them, and three women and two children, and another woman carrying a baby. One of the men was armed with a musket, the rest with pikes. The man with the musket asked me a question—he spoke so broadly that I couldn’t understand him, but I caught the word “rooms.” Could it be that he wanted to know how many rooms there were in the house?

“Six,” I said, “we have six rooms above, and two below. Eight in all.” I held up my fingers. I might have been the patron of a hotel touting for custom.

“Go on… go on…” he cried to those about him, driving them ahead, and they filed into the house, the women and the other peasants. Following them was a man who seemed to have but half a leg; he was carried by two others who, though they walked, looked almost as ill as he.

“That’s it,” said the peasant with the musket, prodding his fellows like so many cattle, “that’s it… that’s it…” and he pushed them forward to the salon and to Pierre’s small library that opened out of it.

“They’ll fix themselves,” he said to me, “they’ll need bedding…”

So much I understood, more from his gestures than his speech, and he pointed to his mouth and rubbed his belly.

“They’re hungry. Doubled-up. What with that, and the sickness…” He grinned, showing toothless gums. “All day on the road,” he said. “No good. Everybody tired.”

The man with half a leg was being stretched out on Marie’s settee by his two companions. The women had pushed past me to the kitchen and were opening the cupboards. “That’s it, that’s it…” repeated the man with the musket. “Someone will be along directly to see to the wounded man.” He went out into the street, slamming the door behind him.

Edmé came down the stairs, followed by Emile. “How many are they?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I answered. “I haven’t counted.”

We looked into the salon, and there were more than I thought. Eight men, one with the injured leg, and two who seemed sick. One of these was already grasping his stomach and retching. The stench coming from him was appalling.

“What’s wrong with him?” asked Emile. “Is he going to die?”

The other sick man raised his head and stared at us.

“It’s the sickness,” he said, “half the army has it. We caught it in the north, in Normandy. The food and wine there poisoned us.”

He seemed more educated than the others, and spoke a French I understood.

“It’s dysentery,” said Edmé. “Pierre warned us about it.”

I looked at her, aghast. “We’ll have to put them in a room apart,” I said. “They had better go in the boys’ room upstairs.”

I bent down to the man whose French I understood.

“Follow me,” I said. “You shall have a room to yourselves.”

Once again I reminded myself of some hotel patron, and a wild desire to laugh rose in me, instantly checked when I perceived the full state of the man with dysentery, whom his companion was helping from the floor. He had been lying, poor wretch, in his own filth all about him, and was too weak to walk.

“It’s no use,” said his companion, “he’s too ill to move. If we could have the room yonder.” He jerked his head at Pierre’s library, and began to drag the sick man to it.

“Get a mattress,” I said to Emile. “He’ll have to have a mattress. The other one too. Bring down mattresses for both of them.”

Surely, I thought, the sick man should be stripped of his things, and linen wrapped about him. The clothes he was wearing must be burned… I went into the kitchen, and I saw that every cupboard had been flung open and every drawer turned out, and all the food remaining in the house piled high on the kitchen table. Two women were cutting up the bread, stuffing themselves as they did so, and feeding the children. The third woman stood by the stove, stirring the soup she had found there, suckling her baby at the same time. They took no notice of me when I entered, but went on talking to each other in their own patois.

I took some cloths and a pail of water into the salon to scrub the floor where the poor sick man had lain. And now the man with the injured leg was groaning; I could see the blood coming through his bandages. No one was looking after him. His companions had pushed past me and gone into the kitchen to search for food, and I could hear them cursing the women for feeding themselves before the rest.

There was a thumping on the floor from the back room above, and I called to Emile to tell his mother to keep the children quiet; the house was full of the Vendeans, some of them wounded and sick. He came running back again within the minute.

“The boys are hungry,” he said, “they want to come down to supper.”

“Tell them there is no supper,” I said, wringing out the floorcloth. “The Vendeans have taken it all.”

Somebody thundered on the entrance door, and I thought it might be the man with the musket to see how his friends fared. But when Edmé went to open it six more of them pushed their way inside, five men and a woman, better dressed than our first peasants, and one of the men a priest.

“How many in the house?” demanded the priest.

He wore the Sacred Heart as an emblem on his breast, and a pistol thrust into his belt beside his rosary.

I shut my eyes and counted. “About twenty-four,” I said, “counting ourselves. Some of your people are sick.”

“Dysentery?” he asked.

“Two with dysentery,” I answered, “one with a badly injured leg.”

He turned to the woman beside him, who already held a handkerchief to her nose. She wore a bright green gown under a man’s military cloak, and her feathered hat sat on a pile of curls.

“They’ve dysentery in the house,” he said, “but it’s the same everywhere. The house itself looks clean enough.”

The woman shrugged her shoulders. “I must have a bed,” she said, “and a room to myself. Surely the sick can all go in together?”

The priest pushed past me. “Have you a room upstairs for this lady?” he asked Edmé.

I saw Edmé staring at his Sacred Heart. “We have a room,” she said. “Go upstairs and find it.”

The priest and the woman went upstairs. The other four men had already passed through into the kitchen. In the salon the man with the injured leg began shouting aloud with pain. In a moment or two the priest came down the stairs.

“Madame will stay,” he said. “She is very exhausted, and hungry. You will please take some food up to her at once.”

“There is no food,” I said. “Your people are eating it all in the kitchen.”

He clicked his tongue in annoyance and thrust his way past me to the kitchen. The uproar ceased. I heard the priest’s voice only, raised in anger.

“He’s threatening them with hell,” whispered Emile.

The cursing changed to intoning. They all began saying the Ave Maria, the women’s voices loudest. Then the priest returned to the entrance hall. He looked half-starved himself, but he had not eaten anything.

He stared at me a moment, then asked abruptly, “Where are the wounded?”

I took him to the salon. “One wounded,” I said, “two in the further room with dysentery.”

He muttered something in answer, and, unfastening his rosary, passed into the salon. I saw him glance down at the bloodstained bandage on the leg of the wounded man, but he did not examine the wound or touch the bandage. He held the rosary to the lips of the sufferer, saying, “Misereatur vestri omnipotens Deus.”

I shut the door of the salon and left them alone.

I could hear the latest arrival, the woman, moving about in Pierre’s and Marie’s room above. I went up the stairs and opened the door. The woman had flung wide the cupboards and was turning Marie’s clothes out onto the floor. There was a fine shawl among the clothes, a gift to Marie from my mother. The woman put it round her shoulders.

“Make haste with the supper,” she said. “I don’t intend to wait all night.”

She did not bother to turn her head to see who it was at the door.

“You’ll be lucky if you get any,” I told her. “The women who were here before you have eaten most of it.”

She looked over her shoulder at the sound of my voice, which was new to her. She was handsome in a disagreeable way, and there was nothing of the peasant about her.

“You had better watch your tongue when you address me,” she said. “One word to the men below, and I’ll have you whipped for insolence.”

I did not answer her. I went out and shut the door. It was her kind that the Committee of Public Safety in Paris were rounding up and sending to the Conciergerie en route for the guillotine. As wife or mistress of a Vendean officer, she believed herself of consequence. It did not matter to me. I passed one of the peasant women on the stairs bearing up a tray of food to her. “She doesn’t deserve it,” I murmured. The woman stared.

When I went into the salon once again the man with half a leg was crying softly to himself. The blood had come right through his bandages and soaked the material on the settee. Someone had shut the door leading to the inner room where the dysentery patients lay. The priest had gone.

“We’d forgotten about the wine,” said Edmé, coming through from the hall.

“Wine? What wine?” I asked.

“Pierre’s wine,” she said. “There were about a dozen bottles in the cellar. Those men have found it. They have all the bottles on the kitchen table, and are knocking the heads off them.”

Emile had crept past me and was listening at the door of the inner room.

“I think one of those men must be dying in there,” he whispered. “There’s a queer groaning noise. Shall I open the door and see?”

It was suddenly too much. The moment and the hour. Nothing that any of us could do would be of use. I felt my legs tremble under me.

“Let’s lock ourselves in one of the rooms upstairs,” I said.

As we left the salon the man with half a leg began to groan again. Nobody heard him. They were all singing and laughing in the kitchen, and just before we locked ourselves in Edmé’s room we heard a great crash of breaking glass.

Somehow we slept that night, waking every few hours and losing all count of time, disturbed by continual treading in the rooms beside us, and by crying—whether of our own younger children from the back of the house or the Vendeans we could not tell. Emile complained of hunger, though he had eaten well at midday. Edmé and I had taken nothing since early morning.

We must have fallen heavily asleep, all three of us, in the small hours, for we were awakened about seven to hear the sound of the cathedral bells. Emile jumped off the bed and ran to open the shutters. The bells were pealing as they did on Easter Day.

“It’s the Vendean priests,” said Edmé after a moment. “They’re going to celebrate their entry into the city by singing Mass in the cathedral. I hope they choke themselves.”

The rain had ceased. A dreary, fitful sun was trying to force its way through the pallid sky.

“The street’s empty,” said Emile. “None of the shutters are open in the houses opposite. Shall I go downstairs and see what’s happening?”

“No,” I said, “no, I’ll go.”

I smoothed my hair and straightened my clothes, and unlocked the door. The house was silent, but for the sound of heavy snoring in the adjoining room. The door was half-ajar. I glanced in. The woman with the baby was asleep on the bed, and a man beside her. One of the other children was lying on the floor.

I crept downstairs and looked into the salon. The room was in complete confusion, with broken bottles strewn about the floor and men sprawled anyhow. The man with half a leg was still lying on the couch, but twisted sideways, his arms above his head. He was breathing loudly, half snoring with each breath he took. He was probably unconscious. The door through to Pierre’s library was still shut, and I could not go and ask after the men with dysentery because of the others sleeping on the floor.

The kitchen was in the same confusion. Wreckage and destruction everywhere, broken bottles and spilled wine, and the filthy litter of spoiled food. Four of them were on the floor here too, one of them a woman, with a child across her knees. None of them woke when I entered, and I felt they would lie here all the day. One glance about me, and in the larder, was enough to tell me there was nothing to eat.

Once, long ago when we were children, a traveling menagerie had come to Vibraye, and my father had taken Edmé and me to see the animals. They were penned in cages, and after staring at them awhile we came away, because of the reeking smell. The kitchen smelled as the cages had done that day. I went back again upstairs, and beckoned Edmé and Emile, and we went through to the room at the back to see Marie and the others. We found them desperate with anxiety, not knowing how we had fared. The children were whining and restless, asking for their breakfast, and the poor dog frantic to go outside.

“Let me take her,” said Emile, “they’re all asleep. No one will say anything to me.”

Edmé shook her head, and I guessed her thought. If a dog was loose in the street, even for a moment, some passer-by might seek to destroy it instantly for food. The larder in our house was empty, others in the city would be the same. There were some eighty thousand Vendeans in Le Mans, and somehow, through the day, all of their number must be fed…

“Have you anything to give our children?” I asked. My sister-in-law had four loaves left, and some apples, and a jug of milk half-turned. The widow had three pots of blackcurrant preserve. They had water enough to brew coffee, and with this they must be satisfied. There was plenty of wood to keep the fire going.

The three of us drank coffee, knowing it might be all we should get that day, and then we locked their door and went back to our own room. We went on sitting there through the morning, keeping a watch on the window in turn, and about noon Emile, who was on guard, reported movement from the house opposite. Two Vendeans came out and stretched themselves, and presently a third, and then a fourth, and they talked among themselves awhile on the step, and then began walking up the street.

There was movement in our house too. We heard the door open below, and two of our “lodgers” went into the street, with the woman and the child who had been lying in the kitchen. They walked up the street after the others.

“They’re hungry,” said Emile. “They’re going off to see if they can do better somewhere else.”

“It’s like watching a play,” said Edmé, “and not knowing the ending. A play where the actors don’t pretend anymore, but come alive.”

Suddenly we saw a carriage come up the street, driven by a man in uniform, wearing a white cockade. The carriage stopped before our door.

“It’s that priest,” said Edmé. “He’s had a lift to save his feet.”

She was right. The priest of the night before got out of the carriage and knocked on the door of our house. We heard someone open the door and admit him. There was a murmur of voices from below, and presently a stumping up the stairs, and knocking on the room at the end of the landing, Pierre’s and Marie’s room, where the woman in the green dress had gone.

“What’s he going to do in there?” whispered Emile.

Edmé murmured something under her breath and Emile, half choking, stuffed his fist into his mouth.

In about five minutes’ time the window of Pierre’s room was flung open and we heard the priest shouting down to the soldier in uniform. The soldier shouted back, and then one of the peasants from below went and held his horse, and the soldier entered the house and came upstairs.

“Two of them?” whispered Emile, his voice high with hysteria.

Presently there was a sound of dragging and thumping from the room to the stairs, and peering from our window we saw that the priest and the soldier were hauling Marie’s clothespress into the street, helped by one of the peasants, and between the three of them they lifted it into the carriage.

“Oh no…” said Edmé. “No… no…”

I held her wrist. “Be quiet,” I said. “We can’t do anything.”

Now the woman in the green dress was throwing things out of the window, shoes belonging to Marie, and a fur cape and several dresses, and, not content, she followed up with the blankets from the bed and the quilted bedspread that had been Pierre’s and Marie’s from their wedding day. The woman found nothing else to her fancy, for soon we heard her coming down the stairs, and she went out into the street and stood talking for a moment to the priest and the soldier. Her voice carried, and it was not difficult to understand her.

“What has been decided?” she asked, and the soldier and the priest argued together, but it was impossible to hear them, though the soldier pointed towards the center of the town.

“If the Prince Tallemont is for evacuating the city you can rest assured that is what we shall do,” said the woman.

There was further argument and further talk, and then she and the priest climbed into the carriage and the soldier took the reins and they drove away.

“The priest didn’t go in to look at the wounded man, or the men with the dysentery,” said Emile. “All he could think about was letting that woman have my mother’s clothes.”

The priest’s example must have fired the peasants, who had awakened from their drunken sleep below, for there now started a great racket throughout the house, up and down the stairs and in the salon and the kitchen, and the men began carrying things out into the street as well—pots and pans, and coats belonging to Pierre from the closet in the entrance hall.

I was reminded, all too suddenly, of the workmen from le Chesne-Bidault and their forays to Authon and St. Avit. What had been done to others was now done to us.

“Only surely,” I said to myself, “it was not quite the same. Surely Michel and the workmen set about it differently?”

Perhaps not. Perhaps, in fact, it had been just the same. And there had been women and a young boy watching the National Guard from the windows of the château Charbonnières just as we now watched the Vendeans.

“We can’t prevent them,” I said to Edmé. “Don’t let’s look anymore.”

“I can’t stop myself,” said Edmé. “The more I watch, the more I hate. I didn’t know it was possible to hate so much.”

She stared down at the street below, and Emile called out in bewilderment and anger when he recognized familiar objects carried from the house.

“There’s the clock from the salon,” he said, “the one with the chimes. And my father’s fishing rod—what can they want with that? They’ve stripped the curtains from the window and rolled them into a bundle, and that woman with the children is making one of the men carry them on his shoulder. Why can’t we shoot at them?”

“Because,” said Edmé, “they’re too many for us. Because, perhaps for this day only, luck is on their side.”

I saw her glance at the two muskets still standing in the corner of the room, and I could guess how much it cost her to keep her hands off them.

“That’s the finish,” said Emile suddenly, his eyes filling with tears. “The woman has found Dadá in the cupboard below the stairs. She has given it to her child, and he’s walking off with it.”

Dadá was the wooden horse that had been Emile’s childhood toy, prized all his thirteen years, and now the loved property of his youngest brother. Clocks, clothes, bed linen, the theft of these I had accepted with resignation, but the bearing away of Dadá was the final outrage.

“Stay here,” I said, “I’ll get it back for you.”

I unlocked the door and ran downstairs and into the street after the woman and the boy. Neither Edmé nor Emile had told me, though, that the peasants had been piling their loot into a cart, and now, as I came out into the street, they had climbed up into the cart and were driving off. There were three or four of them in the cart, sitting on top of the stuff they had packed onto it, and the woman was there, and the boy clutching Dadá.

“We don’t mind you taking the other things,” I cried, “it’s the horse. The horse belongs to the children in the house.”

They stared down at me, astonished. I don’t think they understood me. The woman nudged her companions, and broke into a silly cackle of laughter. She shouted something, which made all of them laugh, but what it was I could not say.

“I’ll find your boy another toy if we could have back the horse,” I said.

Then the man who was driving cut down at me with his whip, flaying my face. The shock of the pain made me cry out, and I backed away from the cart, and a moment later they were driving down the street. I heard the window above being opened, and Edmé called down to me, her voice half-strangled and unlike herself, “I’ll shoot them for that… I’ll shoot them for that.”

“No,” I shouted, “no, they’ll kill you…”

I ran up the stairs and into the room, and as I entered it I heard the explosive shot of the musket. She had missed, of course, and the shot had hit a house at the end of the street. The peasants, startled, looked up at the sky and all about them, then drove on, turned the corner of the street and disappeared. They had not seen from where the shot had come.

“That was madness,” I told Edmé. “If they had seen you, they would have sent soldiers back to shoot us all.”

“I wish they would,” said Edmé, “I wish they would…”

I looked at myself in the mirror on the wall. There was a great weal on my face where the man had laid his whip, and it was bleeding too. I did not mind the pain, but the shock of what had happened made me feel faint. I put my handkerchief to my face and sat on the bed, trembling.

“Are you hurt?” asked Emile anxiously.

“No,” I said, “no, it’s not that.”

It was what one person could do to another. The man driving the cart, not knowing me, cracking my face with his whip. It was Edmé, shooting wildly from the window. It was the crowd, in ’89, before the Abbey of St. Vincent. It was the two men being butchered at Ballon…

“I’m going to see what’s happening below,” said Edmé.

I went on sitting on the bed, holding the handkerchief to my face.

When she came up again, and Emile with her—I had not noticed he had followed her—she said that the man with half a leg was delirious, moaning and thrashing about, his bandages loose.

“There’s blood all over the settee and on the floor,” said Emile.

“He’ll die if a doctor does not see him,” said Edmé.

I stared at her. “Perhaps we should try and clean the wound?” I said.

“Why should we?” she answered. “The sooner he dies the better. It would be one Vendean the less.”

She went over again to the window and stared down into the street.

Presently, when I felt better, I went downstairs myself to look at the injured man. There was no one else in the salon, all the others had gone. The man was muttering and moaning, and the blood had soaked right through the bandages to the couch and onto the floor. I went through the salon and opened the door of the inner room. The stench was unbearable. Instinctively, I clapped my handkerchief over my nose and mouth. One man lay on his back dead. I knew he was dead because of the stiffness. The other, the one who had spoken courteously the day before, lifted his head from his mattress as I entered.

“My friend is dead,” he murmured. “I am going to die too. If you could ask the priest to come…”

I went out and shut the door. I went back to the wounded man and stared down at his bandage. At least, if I cut away the bandages and put a clean cloth on the wound, it might help to staunch the blood. I might have known, though, that the Vendeans would have stripped the linen closet too. It was empty. I found a white petticoat in Pierre’s and Marie’s room which the woman in the green dress had picked up and thrown aside. This I tore into strips to make a clean bandage for the wounded man.

When I tried to take away the soaked old bandage I found it stuck to the gaping wound beneath, and I was too sick to try and cut it away, so I put the new bandage on top of the old. Somehow, to my ignorant eye, it looked better, cleaner. I tried to give the man some water to drink, but he was too delirious to take it, and swept the cup aside.

“They’ll have to have a priest,” I remember thinking. “We can’t do any more for these men. They must have a priest.”

Edmé and Emile were still above, and the rest of the family shut away in the room at the back. Nothing any longer went by rule—I did not even know the time of day. I went out into the street to find a priest. The first I saw was in so great a hurry to attend a meeting of the Vendean chiefs that he made a cross in the air above my head, after expressing his regrets, and went his way.

The second, when I told him men were dying, replied, “There are thousands dying, all asking to be shriven. Yours must await their turn. What is your address?” I gave it to him, and he too went his way.

Curiosity—for no one took any notice of me—made me walk as far as the municipality, and I saw, without surprise, that the Vendeans were serving it much as they had served us. Numbers of them were flinging things out of the windows into the street below, not to bear off as trophies, but for destruction. They had a fire burning before the building, and were feeding it with tables, chairs, and rugs.

The crowds assembled were like nothing I had ever seen in Paris, before ’89 or after it. There were peasants barefoot, with sabots looped from a string round their necks, their women hanging on to them, and soldiers too, wearing the white cockade, and ladies of the former aristocracy wrapped in coats, their ringlets falling from beneath enormous hats. It was a masquerade of olden times, a scene from an opera. Had I not known their origin I should have said that these people had dressed up for the occasion, instead of fighting their way from the coast across the Loire to Normandy and back.

Suddenly there appeared two Vendean chiefs riding in the midst of them, and the crowd fell apart, making way. They were fantastic, like engravings out of history, with great white plumes soaring from their hats after the style of Henri IV, and the broad white sash encircling their waists. Their breeches were the color of chamois, their boots were buskin, and their swords were curved like scimitars.

No wonder that the peasants about me curtseyed, making the sign of the cross at their approach.

“It’s the prince Tallemont,” said a woman near to me. “It’s he who wants us to march to Paris.”

I continued walking, looking for a priest to come to the dying men, but everywhere people were piling carts and horses with the loot they had taken from the houses and the shops, and whoever I asked brushed my question aside, repeating the saying of the second priest that many people were dying, there was no time to attend to all of them, and anyway the city was to be evacuated the next day.

Here at least was something to cling to, even if we were left with dying men. I went back to the house without a priest, and we waited there through the rest of the day, but no one came, not even our peasant lodgers. They must have found more food and better quarters elsewhere.

When, just before dusk, I went into the little room through the salon, I saw that the man with the dysentery who had asked for the priest was dead. I found something to cover both their bodies, and shut the door. The man with half a leg was no longer delirious. He stared at me with hollow eyes, and begged for water. I gave him some, and when I asked after his wound he said it no longer pained him, but he had stomach cramps. He began to roll from side to side, gasping with this new pain, and then I saw that he too had dysentery. There was nothing I could do. I stayed with him a moment and left the water by his side, then shut the door and went upstairs.

Soon darkness came, and the long night. Nothing happened. Nobody came. Next day bugles sounded the alert, echoing from every quarter of the city, and, just as we had done the day before at the sound of the church bells, so we rushed again to the window, and flung aside the shutters.

“It’s the call to arms,” shouted Emile. “They’re leaving us… they’re going.”

The Vendeans were running out of the houses opposite, some of them still barefoot, clutching their weapons. We could hear artillery in the distance.

“It’s our army,” said Edmé, “it’s Westermann and the republicans at last.”

Emile wanted to run out into the streets at once, and we had to hold him back.

“They’re not here yet, Emile,” I told him. “There may be heavy fighting in the city. We don’t know which way the battle will go.”

“I can at least help it to go our way,” said Edmé, and she reached for the musket and took careful aim out of the window. This time, when she fired, she had an easier target, for she picked off a Vendean standing in the middle of the road, uncertain which way to run. He fell instantly, his left leg kicking like a hare. Then he lay still.

“I’ve hit him,” said Edmé, her voice unsteady. “I’ve killed him.”

The three of us stared down at the doubled-up body in the street.

“There’s another,” cried Emile, jumping up and down. “Hit that one coming out of the door.”

Edmé did not do anything. She just stared out of the window. The Vendeans came pouring out of the houses to the summons of the bugle. They took no notice of the man Edmé had shot. They shouted to one another distraught, asking which way to go. I heard one of them say, “The blues are attacking the city. The blues must have captured the bridge.” They all started running up the street to the sound of the bugle, panic-stricken, in no sort of order, and out of the houses came the women too, some of them with children, running this way and that, like frightened geese. Then one of them saw the man Edmé had shot. She ran to his side and turned him over.

“It’s Jean-Louis,” she cried, “he’s dead. Someone has shot him.”

She began to scream, rocking backwards and forwards, and the child with her stared, his finger in his mouth. One of the peasants came and led them both away, the woman protesting, looking back over her shoulder.

“I’ll go and tell them all in the back room,” said Emile excitedly. “I’ll go and tell them tante Edmé has shot a brigand.”

He ran from the room, calling his news loudly. Edmé leaned the musket against the window.

“I don’t know why it had to be that one,” she said, her voice unsteady still. “He wasn’t doing anything. If it could have been the man who cracked his whip…”

“It never is,” I said. “It’s never the right man. That’s why it’s so useless.”

I turned away from the window, and went downstairs into the salon. The man with half a leg had fallen off the couch onto the floor. He was still breathing. He was not dead.

There was a great hubbub above. Emile had unlocked the door and told everyone that the brigands were running away, and Edmé had shot one who was lying dead in the street. The younger boys wanted to see. Even the dog came tearing down the stairs, barking excitedly to go out.

“No,” I said, “go back, everybody. Nothing is over yet. They’re fighting in the streets.”

I saw the shocked white face of the widow staring down at the wounded man from the head of the staircase.

“Go back,” I said. “Please all of you go back.”

I shut the dog in the kitchen—the scraps and litter on the floor would quieten her. I could hear Edmé persuading the others to go back into their room until the fighting was over.

Through the rest of the day, all through the night, the battle continued, and next morning, about seven, we heard musket shots near to us in the street, and the sound of cavalry too.

Inevitably we went to our vantage point beside the window, and we saw that the Vendeans had come back to our street once more, but this time not as conquerors. They were running for their lives, seeking shelter. Men, women, children, they were running down the street, their mouths open wide in terror, their arms outstretched, and our hussars were after them, cutting them down with their sabers, sparing no one. The women were screaming, and the children too, but our hussars were yelling and shouting in triumph.

“Get them… get them… get them…” cried Edmé savagely, and she picked up the musket once more and fired it blindly into the retreating crowd. Somebody fell, to be trampled in his turn by others.

The National Guard came running down the street behind the hussars, and they were shooting too, and suddenly I saw Pierre, carrying no weapon, his right arm in a sling, his uniform stripped and torn, and he was shouting at the top of his voice, “No… no… Stop the slaughter of the women and children… Stop the slaughter…”

Emile leaned out of the window, laughing excitedly. “We’re here, Papa,” he called. “Look at us, we’re here, we’re safe.”

Edmé picked off another Vendean who had sheltered in a doorway, and the man’s companion, firing blindly in self-defense, returned the shot, not looking, then ran on down the street.

The shot struck Emile full in the face and he fell backwards into my arms, choking, his face bespattered with blood.

He uttered no other sound, but from the street below came the screams of the Vendean women as they were cut down by our hussars.

Pierre did not see the shot that killed his son. He was still standing in the street, crying out to his companions of the National Guard, who took no notice of him, “Stop the slaughter! Stop the hussars from killing those women and children.”

I knelt on the floor, clasping Emile to me, rocking backwards and forwards as I had seen the Vendean woman do earlier in the day when she found the dead man in the street.

“Oh, Lamb of God,” I said, “oh, Lamb of God who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us. Have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us.…”

Somewhere, at the far end of the street, I heard a burst of cheering, and our men singing the Marseillaise.

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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